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In Sheffield, panel seeks truth in Black history, where narratives often run white

Elizabeth Freeman roundable

At a roundtable to discuss ethics in the telling of Black stories at Dewey Hall in Sheffield Friday, from left:  Dr. Frances Jones-Sneed, Dr. Sari Edelstein, Dr. Kendra T. Field and Dr. Kerri Greenidge. 

SHEFFIELD — The story of Elizabeth Freeman isn’t that much of a mystery — or is it?

Her story is told in books, a painting, and on the epitaph of her gravestone. At least, part of it. That gravestone? It makes no mention of her lawsuit in a Great Barrington courthouse that set her free.

The picture that was painted shows her through her white employer’s eyes. It’s the only one we’ve got, painted by Susan Anne Livingston Ridley Sedgwick.

Below what the canvas shows is a prominent scar on her arm — an injury made during a violent attack by the enslaver she lived with before she won her freedom, a scar she liked to display.

Then there is the case of the gold beads — a gift from Catharine Sedgwick, the daughter of Freeman’s lawyer, Thomas Sedgwick.

In her will, Freeman bequeathed the beads to her great-granddaughter. Instead, later on, Catharine Sedgwick turned the beads into a bracelet. The bracelet was then donated by the family to the Massachusetts Historical Society. So, was Freeman’s will executed with fidelity?

No one talks about this aspect of Freeman’s life. And these are just a few examples presented by Dr. Sari Edelstein, an associate professor of English at UMass Boston who joined a panel of scholars Friday to talk about the telling of Black Stories, and ethics in Black history.

She pointed to the scant archival material — in this case, there is Freeman’s will — to explain how the realities of Freeman’s life have been obscured by the glorious narrative of Freeman that is so widely celebrated today.

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Freeman’s story, Edelstein said, doesn’t “always end with a rosy picture of freedom.”

The event at Dewey Hall, hosted by the W.E.B. Du Bois Center for Freedom and Democracy, kicked off a weekend of separate events to both celebrate and reflect on Freeman’s Legacy, ending with the dedication Sunday of a bronze monument to Freeman on the Sheffield Green.

Sheffield is where Freeman had been enslaved in the home of Col. John Ashley, before attorney Theodore Sedgwick helped her sue for her freedom. A jury decided in her favor, and she changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman and went to work as a paid servant at Sedgwick’s home in Stockbridge.

“We don’t really have Mum Bett’s interiority,” Edelstein said, using Freeman’s enslaved name, “Bett,” with the “Mum” added by the Sedgwicks.

Black history often is told from a white perspective. It also involves “silences” of the oppressed, and can create a false narrative of even the most celebrated historical figure.

“There are ways to honor her and think about her role here that can coexist with information that we don’t know,” Edelstein, said, noting that we don’t, for instance, know how much the Sedgwicks paid Freeman.

In this case, Freeman’s story, like other historical figures, flows through a record written from outside her own community, the panelists said.

“Who are these things written for?” said historian Dr. Frances Jones-Sneed, professor emeritus at MCLA, suggesting the question is one that needs asking when evaluating a narrative.

And Dr. Kendra Field, associate professor of history at Tufts University and historical advisor to the Du Bois Center, said historical figures in New England like Freeman and Du Bois can be “plucked out of context.”

Dr. Kerri Greenidge, an assistant professor of Race, Colonialism and Diaspora, also at Tufts, said for all these reasons it is important to find different historical sources that might reveal a truth of the Black experience.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871.

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